ANCHORAGE, Alaska—The big nightmare, of course, would be a blowout like the one at the B.P's Macondo Well in the Gulf of Mexico. that disaster killed 11 people -- and spilled an estimated 210 million gallons of oil in the spring of 2010.
But Shell says such a blowout in the Chukchi is impossible. For one thing Macondo well was a high-pressure well. Shell's lease is for a low-pressure well.
Shell engineers say that drilling muds, aboard its platform the Noble Discoverer, will be enough to weigh down any blowout -- and prevent it from leaking into the sea.
Furthermore Shell claims, even if the company is wrong -- even if a blowout works its way all the way up to the ocean floor -- it will have a state-of-the-art Blowout Preventer in place. That Blowout Preventer will meet higher standards than the one that failed 2 years ago at the Macondo Well. For one thing it will have a "Double Shearing Ram". That is, TWO heavy-duty devices that can be rammed into place to stop a spill.
However, that is not enough to counter the concerns of environmentalists. They say that even if the well is drilled without incident, even the considerable noise generated by routine drilling operations will be enough to harm marine mammals like the Bowhead Whales and Walruses. They say it will also affect Polar Bears -- who are already stressed by declining sea ice.
In addition, Greenpeace says its scientific submarines have found delicate coral reefs in the drilling area. The organization contends that those reefs will be damaged by sea anchors and by other heavy machinery at the drilling site -- even under routine, normal operations.
Shell says that any issues with those reefs in its Environmental Impact Statement -- while Greenpeace insists the reefs were NOT addressed in the E.I.S at all!
Meanwhile, on another front, the timing of Salazar's announcement today had some people suspecting that it was politically motivated.
During the press conference, Salazar was asked by a reporter if it was an attempt to upstage Mitt Romney on the night he was to accept the Republican Nomination for the Presidency. Four years ago, Republicans held a convention famous for the slogan "drill baby drill". But Salazar denied any political motivation in the timing of his drilling permits.
Whoever is right in this cross-current of arguments -- and counter-argruments -- one thing is clear. The drilling platform "Noble Discoverer" will arrive on the scene in the arctic this weekend. It could start drilling as early as Sunday -- although it's more likely that drilling operations will begin sometime later in the week.
No one knows what it will find there, but if the U.S.G.S is right, it could be one of the more significant oil discoveries in recent history.
However, if the environmentalists are right, the industrialization of the Arctic Ocean could be the beginning of the chronic degredation of a pristine environment.
The oil companies contend they've done it right in Prudhoe Bay -- and they intend to drill safely in the Arctic Ocean.
But the fact is that there is no plan for dismantling Prudhoe Bay, and there will be environmental marks from that development long after drilling there has ceased.
In the end, the motivation for all this drilling comes down to you and I -- and our insatiable demand to fill our cars and our pick-up trucks with gasoline.
The question of what the long-term effects of all this drilling for -- and burning of -- hydrocarbons will do to us is still not fully resolved.
But if the climate scientists of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are right, the results of carbon combustion could be extremely serious -- and those impacts could, within the next few decades, become irreversible.
Meanwhile the world continues to consumer 88 million barrels of oil per day -- that's more than 40-thousand gallons of oil each and every second!